Florenz Ziegfeld (AP Photo)
Florenz Ziegfeld didn't sing or play any musical instruments. He wasn't a songwriter or a producer. And yet he is remembered as “the most important and influential producer in the history of the Broadway musical," according to PBS.org.
With his incredibly elaborate Ziegfeld Follies revues, recast almost every year from their creation in 1907 until Ziegfeld's death in 1932, he created the "Ziegfeld Girl" and defined the American standard of beauty at that time. His lavish productions, including the groundbreaking musical Show Boat, set the bar for Broadway. The biggest showman of his time, Ziegfeld helped launch the careers of Will Rogers, Eddie Cantor, Fanny Brice and W.C. Fields.
Rogers once commented that performers like him had a badge of honor, according to the online encyclopedia Musicals 101.com. "It was the simple but proud statement, 'I worked for Ziegfeld.' "
March 21 is the 147th anniversary of Ziegfeld's birth. In the 1946 movie Ziegfeld Follies, one of many films based on Ziegfeld and his work, actor William Powell proclaims, "The world will never forget the Ziegfeld Follies." But have we?
That's unclear. Although Musicals101 notes that, "More than seven decades after his death, the name of Florenz Ziegfeld embodies Broadway at its most glamorous," others feel differently. The Boston Globe's Mark Griffin wrote in 2009 that if Ziegfeld is remembered at all today, "it's most likely by way of Walter Pidgeon's portrayal in Funny Girl or as a name synonymous with the sort of lavish theatrical spectacle that long ago went the way of ice wagons and hourglass corsets."
Griffin, in a review of Ziegfeld: The Man Who Invented Show Business by Ethan Mordden, noted that Ziegfeld's legacy is "somewhat problematic for cultural historians, who seem simultaneously awe-struck and embarrassed by him." On one hand, he took risks, financing the original Show Boat, the first racially integrated musical that also featured an interracial marriage. On the other, the majority of his shows were rather lowbrow, featuring near-naked women.”
The "Ziegfeld Girls," the chorus girls in his Follies, captured the hearts of America, according to the online Parlor Songs Academy: "Ziegfeld's displays of feminine beauty were bold and daring and became more bold with each edition. He went from the suggestive to the explicit over time however never quite crossing the line to full nudity."
Ziegfeld was often called "the glorifier of the American girl," his obituary by The Associated Press said, and he apparently liked the nickname.
A 1925 article published under Zeigfeld’s name in New York’s Morning Telegraph newspaper revealed what qualities he looked for in his female performers: "Beauty, of course, is the most important requirement and the paramount asset of the applicant. When I say that, I mean beauty of face, form, charm and manner, personal magnetism, individuality, grace and poise."
Paintings of Ziegfeld’s girls by artist Alberto Vargas are coveted by collectors even today.
Ziegfeld made millions of dollars during his career. But he also lost millions – some to gambling and the rest to increasingly elaborate shows. His last production was a revival of Show Boat. As Musicals101 notes, "Desperate and ailing, Ziegfeld reunited most of the original stars. … Despite rave reviews, the height of the Depression and high production costs made it impossible for this lavish revival to turn a profit."
Ziegfeld died during the show's run. He was deeply in debt, with some reports saying he owed upward of $2 million.
"He simply couldn't stop being more and more lavish with every show," Musicals101 quoted his wife, Billie Burke Ziegfeld, as saying. "In the end they were costing hundreds of thousands of dollars and often it took years to pay off the initial investment. The result was a personal tragedy for their creator, but the world remembers Mr. Ziegfeld as the man who revealed a whole new world of color and light and gaiety in the modern musical revue."
Ziegfeld's widely reported last words were pure Broadway: "Curtain! Fast music! Light! Ready for the last finale! Great! The show looks good, the show looks good!"
Natalie Pompilio is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. Her lifelong love of obituaries raised eyebrows when she was younger, but she's now able to explain that this interest goes beyond morbid curiosity. Says Pompilio, "Obituaries are mini life stories, allowing a glimpse into someone's world that we're often denied. I just wish we could share them with each other when we're alive."